Morphological and genetic predictors of parental care in the North American barn swallow Hirundo rustica erythrogaster


  • Sarah E. Maguire,

  • Rebecca J. Safran

S. E. Maguire, Dept. of Biol., Univ. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6018, USA. – R. J. Safran (correspondence), Dept. of Ecol. and Evol. Biol., Univ. of Colorado, Boulder, CO, 80309, USA. E-mail:


Sexually dimorphic traits often signal the fitness benefits an individual can provide to potential mates. In species with altricial young, these signals may also predict the level of parental care an individual is expected to provide to shared offspring. In this study, we tested three hypotheses that traditionally relate sexually dimorphic traits to parental care in two populations of North American barn swallows Hirundo rustica erythrogaster. The good parent hypothesis predicts a positive relationship between an individual's ornamentation and his or her care whereas the differential allocation (more care given by individuals when paired to high quality mates) and reproductive compensation (more care given by individuals when paired to low quality mates) hypotheses predict that an individual's level of parental investment is relative to the quality of their mate. Male and female North American barn swallows have colorful ventral feathers and elongated tail streamers, but there is evidence that ventral color, not tail streamer length, predicts measures of seasonal reproductive success. Accounting for the positive correlation between within-pair feeding rates and other potentially confounding variables in all of our models, we found no support for the good parent hypothesis because in both males and females, traits shown to be under sexual selection did not predict feeding rates in either sex. However, our data reveal that male coloration, and not streamer length, predicted a female's provisioning rate to shared offspring (females fed more when paired with darker individuals) in two separate populations, supporting the differential allocation, but not the reproductive compensation hypothesis. Because genetic traits have also been shown to affect parental investment, we evaluated this variable as well and found that a male's paternity did not have significant effects on either male or female feeding rates. Overall, our results suggest that females do not pair with darker males in order to gain direct benefits in terms of his expected levels of parental care to shared offspring, but do themselves invest greater levels of care when paired to darker males. Further, our results are consistent with previous studies which suggest that ventral feather color, not streamer length, is a target of sexual selection in North American populations of barn swallow because females invested more in their offspring when paired to darker mates.